Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

How the Narratives Were Compiled

Image: caption follows
Richard Toler, Age about 100

The responses of the FWP's state units Lomax's request for ex-slave materials varied. Interviews were conducted in all Southern and most border states, as well as in New York and Rhode Island. Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas sponsored especially productive projects, but the achievement of the Arkansas Project-- whose Director, Bernice Babcock, had a special interest in the ex-slave narratives--exceeded that of any other state. Although their brevity often limits their utility, the nearly seven hundred Arkansas narratives constitute almost one-third of the entire collection. One writer alone, Irene Robertson, interviewed 286 former slaves. Yet in this instance, as in many others in the history of the Writers' Project, plans for publication were frustrated by the termination of the FWP.

Most of the narratives were compiled in 1937 and early 1938. Thereafter, interviewing was curtailed for several reasons. The competing demands of several other FWP projects in addition to the preparation of the Guides meant that the slave narrative project could not continue indefinitely. Uncertainty about the ultimate disposition of the narratives curbed interest as well. Many officials also felt that the repetition that characterized the narratives marked a point of diminishing returns. Finally, many felt-erroneously, it now appears--that the supply of ex-slaves had been exhausted.16 By the spring of 1939 the collecting of ex-slave interviews had ceased.

After interviewing ended, the narratives lay dormant for several years and it appeared that they might be relegated to permanent archival oblivion in their respective states. Upon the termination of the Writers' Project, however, responsibility for the final disposition of the narratives was assumed by the Writers' Unit of the Library of Congress Project, which was concerned primarily with the conservation of Writers' Project materials not intended for publication by the individual states. Approximately 2,300 narratives, as well as a thousand related documents and other "non-narrative materials" (consisting primarily of copies of the following documents: newspaper advertisements of slave auctions and runaways, state laws and bills pertaining to slavery, tax enumerations on slaves,bills of sale, and so forth), were among the materials called in from the states for permanent storage in the Library of Congress.

Benjamin A. Botkin, a noted folklorist who had succeeded Lomax as Folklore Editor of the Writers' Project, directed the processing of these materials. Botkin was chiefly responsible for preserving the narratives in a permanent collection, for without his sensitivity to the value of this collective portrait and without his concern for their preservation and what could be made of them, the interviews would probably never have been put to use. Appropriately subtitling the collection "A Folk History of Slavery in the United States," Botkin supervised the accession of the interview materials from the states and their organization into bound volumes that were then deposited in the Rare Book Room of the Library of Congress.17 With the exception of a number of the Virginia narratives used in the preparation of The Negro in Virginia and not forwarded to Washington, all the narratives that had been sent to Washington from state Writers' Project offices were presented in bound volumes to the Library of Congress in 1941.

NEXT: Making the Collection Known

Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives